Teachers as activists

30 Jul

“Dans ces conditions, accepter d’entrer dans le jeu des prix et des récompenses serait aussi donner ma caution à un esprit et une évolution, dans le monde scientifique, que je reconnais comme profondément malsains, et d’ailleurs condamnés à disparaître à brève échéance tant ils sont suicidaires spirituellement, et même intellectuellement et matériellement.” -Alexandre Grothendieck, declining the Crafoord prize in 1988

I remember my father saying that it isn’t teachers’ role to be politically involved (he may have changed his mind since). While teachers have no right to impose their opinions on students and should let them learn to articulate theirs instead, I do no see why this should be true. Although teachers may take risks by getting involved in radical political activities since they cannot afford to have a police record, I cannot imagine how an apolitical teacher could teach critical thinking because there is no such thing as apolotical: you either have learned to construct your own opinion or you merely convey the dominant discourse to your students without challenging it while calling it a “neutral” position. I believe that teaching how to think can only be done by people who practice critical thinking themselves.

Another aspect of this issue is that an overwhelming majority of teachers, especially in higher levels, come from a middle-class, bourgeois background and are thus members of a privileged section of the population. Too often, their attitude towards teaching aims to maintain and reproduce that privilege rather than to challenge discrimination within the institution. Privilege should imply responsibility. Neglecting to question the power that derives from privilege means that knowledge will be available only to a select few and denied to those who do not, or cannot, conform to the models already in place due to class, gender or race.

Activist teachers are working towards a better education system, one that fights against injustices and allows learning to take place by giving students more agency instead of training them to be passive employees and mindless citizens. See, for instance, Denis Rancourt‘s advocacy of radical pedagogy and the way in which his critique of the academic institution had him banned from campus. He writes that “There emerges the notion that risk is a necessary component of activism, without which one can be certain that one is not changing anything.” His is not an isolated effort to challenge institutional power or dismantle authoritarian practices in and out of the classroom. Education cannot be allowed to become the training ground of capitalism. Instead, it should aim to deconstruct systemic discrimination and encourage critical thinking. Transgression, then, may well be a necessary tool for teachers.

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